"It's cool that Auto-Tune makes music sound interesting and futuristic, but I'm still a sucker for somebody with a great voice."
Despite being one of the most successful R&B singers of the decade — with six Grammys and three top-selling albums — John Legend is something of an oddball. From his previous career as a management consultant to his hobnobbing with Obama and Al Gore to his eschewing of raunchy lyrics and voice-manipulation software, the University of Pennsylvania graduate has established an individual template for mega-stardom in his genre. He spoke with me about his year in Boston, the song he sang at the Democratic National Convention, and wishing ill upon one's ex.
YOU WERE IN BOSTON FOR A YEAR AFTER YOU GRADUATED FROM PENN, RIGHT? IN WHAT PART OF TOWN DID YOU LIVE? I lived right by Fenway Park, on Commonwealth Avenue, a couple of blocks from the Citgo sign and close to the Charles River. I was working at the Boston Consulting Group, and then after a year I transferred to the New York office of the Boston Consulting Group, because I wanted to pursue my career there. I had a good year in Boston.
IS IT FAIR TO SAY NONE OF YOUR FELLOW CONSULTANTS WENT ON TO BE MULTI-PLATINUM ROCK STARS? That is fair to say. I know of some Ivy League rock stars and R&B singers — Ryan Leslie went to Harvard — but there's not a lot of artists that were management consultants!
YOUR THIRD ALBUM,EVOLVER, IS MORE UP-TEMPO THAN YOUR PREVIOUS WORK AND FEATURES COLLABORATIONS WITH RAPPERS LIKE ANDRÉ 3000. ARE YOU PERCEIVED DIFFERENTLY NOW THAT YOU'RE PLAYED IN THE CLUBS? I think it probably added some fans that I didn't have before and kind of rounded out my repertoire, and I think I'm more well-known now than I've ever been. But that's not just from Evolver, it's from all of the things I've done over the years. I've done a lot of TV, I've done a lot of politics, and now I'm doing the biggest tour of my career this summer.
"EVERYBODY KNOWS" HAS THE LYRIC "I STILL CAN'T BELIEVE YOU FOUND SOMEBODY NEW, BUT I WISH YOU THE BEST, I GUESS." WAS THAT INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE RELATIONSHIP? It's not explicitly autobiographical, but it has autobiographical elements to it. Whenever you break up with somebody, you want them to be happy, but you want them to have had their happiest moments with you!
AS SOMEONE WHO IS NOT A BIG FAN OF AUTO-TUNE AND HAS COLLABORATED WITH JAY-Z, WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HIS "D.O.A. (DEATH OF AUTO-TUNE)"? I think it's a cool record. I actually used Auto-Tune before it was popular, because I was working with Kanye on songs like "Jesus Walks" — which people don't really realize was Auto-Tune because we used it differently. I don't think it's a terrible thing, I just think it's probably too pervasive at this point. It's cool that it makes music sound cool and interesting and futuristic, but I'm still a sucker for somebody with a great voice.
EVOLVER CLOSES WITH "IF YOU'RE OUT THERE," THE SONG YOU SANG ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION. WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD WHEN YOU COMPOSED IT? I wrote it while we were on our tour for my Show Me Campaign, the anti-poverty charity and initiative I started. We had been going around speaking to young people at colleges. I wanted to write a song that was a rallying cry to the young people we talked to, to make them want to go out and do something. That worked out perfectly for the timing of the Obama campaign, because it was a central part of what he was telling young people.
YOU ATTENDED THE 2009 GREEN INAUGURAL BALL, WHICH WAS CHAIRED BY AL GORE. IS ENVIRONMENTALISM A CAUSE THAT'S CLOSE TO YOUR HEART? We expend a lot of energy touring, and we're trying to be more energy-conscious on this tour. We've brought in a company called Reverb, whose mission is to help artists be more energy-efficient.
NON-FLUSH TOILETS ON THE TOUR BUS? I don't know all the details, but they're working with my tour manager.
ARE YOU WORKING ON A NEW STUDIO ALBUM? I'm in the studio recording various things. I'm doing a project with the Roots that I'm going to put out next year. It's called The Wake-Up Sessions, and it's made up of remakes from the '60s and '70s, songs about social uplift and political protest, things like that. We'll be covering artists like Donny Hathaway, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Bill Withers. There'll be some more, but I don't want to let all the cats out of the bag at this point.
John Legend plays Bank Of America Pavilion this Friday, August 7